What's Happening in Character?

Phyllis L. Fagell

Phyllis L. Fagell is the school counselor at the Sheridan School in Washington, DC and a licensed clinical professional counselor at the Chrysalis Group in Bethesda, MD. Phyllis regularly writes columns for the Washington Post on parenting, counseling and education. She tweets @pfagell.
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Recent Posts

9 Ways Parents Can Help Kids Cope with Jealousy

Posted by Phyllis L. Fagell on Thu, Aug 30, 2018 @ 09:08 AM

I once had three students who tried out for travel soccer in sixth grade. After only one made the team, the other two spread a lie, saying that the girl had made the team only because her uncle was the coach. It wasn’t the first time in my job as a school counselor that I’ve seen kids engage in damaging behavior because of jealousy.

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Seven Steps Parents can Take to Ensure Kids Work for the Right Kind of Popularity

Posted by Phyllis L. Fagell on Thu, Apr 12, 2018 @ 09:04 AM

In elementary school, Nadia and Rosie walked home together every day. They would play with Nadia’s dog and swing on Nadia’s hammock. In sixth grade, that all changed. Rosie felt suffocated by Nadia and dodged her after school. She’d hide in the bathroom until her new friends said the coast was clear. Nadia was hurt and confused, and her mother, Dana, was conflicted. “They’ve been best friends forever,” she told me. “But Rosie is in a faster crowd and constantly gets in trouble. I want Nadia to move on, but instead she’s become obsessed with who’s popular. I’m not sure what, if anything, I should say to Rosie’s mom.”

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Reinforcing Values In Children 

Posted by Phyllis L. Fagell on Thu, Feb 8, 2018 @ 09:02 AM

“Good morning, Phyllis,” the man wrote. “I’m Tim, a stranger to you from Australia. I felt it was worth a chance to reach out to you. I woke up lost, started Googling and by chance found your article on connecting with boys.” He told me he was a 30-year-old single parent to an 11-year-old, and that he felt like he was failing as a father. I did the math and realized he was still a teen when he became a parent.  

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How Parents Can Help Kids Learn From Lapses in Character

Posted by Phyllis L. Fagell on Thu, Jun 8, 2017 @ 11:06 AM


Years ago, my then one-year-old son Ben played with a ball popper during playgroup. His friend Brooke found the same toy appealing and was displeased. She couldn’t form sentences yet, but she let Ben know his turn was up and the toy was rightfully hers. She babbled loudly right in his face for a full minute without stopping for air, then grabbed the toy. As my son drooled and looked at her wide-eyed, her mother sighed. “I think I’m in for it,” she told me. “I love her toughness, but my biggest fear is that she’ll grow up to be a mean girl.”

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Topics: Parenting

We’re Wired for Friendship, Whether We’re 5 or 45

Posted by Phyllis L. Fagell on Thu, Apr 20, 2017 @ 14:04 PM

I still have the handmade pillow I sewed with a friend in fourth grade. We wrote “best friends forever” in puffy paint across the surface. I also have the "slam book" my friends and I created at a sixth grade sleepover. In it, we listed each other’s flaws, then discussed our findings. It amazes me that we considered that a good idea. At 12, peer approval was everything, and those comments stuck. It was 30 years before I cut bangs again. We alternately loved and tested one another, and it wasn’t always pretty.

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Topics: Friendship

Letting Life Get Messy: Lessons from Kindergarten

Posted by Phyllis L. Fagell on Thu, Mar 9, 2017 @ 09:03 AM

A year ago, an eighth grade student came into my counseling office looking stricken. Over the weekend, Lara’s parents had told her they were moving from Maryland to a country in South America. Her father’s global job had taken her to far-flung places before, but she hadn’t seen this move coming. “I thought I’d be going to high school with my friends,” she told me, “not starting all over again. I don’t even speak Spanish!”

I felt for her. Change is hard, especially when it’s foisted on you. I worked with Lara to identify any elements in her control, including her own attitude. She had lived everywhere from Germany to Texas, and we talked about how she had successfully navigated those transitions. We also identified a few positives, including the likelihood she would master a new language.

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Topics: Advisory, character, integrity

Ten Steps to Self-Care

Posted by Phyllis L. Fagell on Thu, Jan 5, 2017 @ 09:01 AM


Even my iPhone thought I was overextended. On a Sunday night, a message flashed across my screen: "There's a lot going on tomorrow. There are nine events scheduled, and the first one starts at 4 am. Your alarm is set for 5:05 am." My first instinct was to laugh, and then wonder what on earth I had going on at 4 am. A friend joked that I was so busy, I had allotted time for dreaming.

As a school counselor, I tell parents not to overwhelm their children with laundry lists of activities. Even young students can feel frayed. Recently, I met with a 7-year-old so prone to rage he avoids competitive sports, and a 10-year-old so chronically exhausted she asks to nap at school.

Many of us have scaled back our kids' commitments, yet still have trouble achieving balance in our own lives. We take ten minutes for lunch and listen to our voicemail in the car. If we exercise, it may be at the expense of sleep. Our friendships take a backseat when we connect through texts instead of over lunch.

Self-care may be an overused buzzword, but it's critical. If we follow the advice we give children, we can restore equilibrium. Here are ten tips we can teach kids and apply to our own lives.

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